New Times Ask for New Voices

This article was first published by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in SLAVIC AND EAST EUROPEAN PERFORMANCE, Volume 28, No. 2, Spring 2008


Aistė Ptakauskė

The political nature of theatre is most apparent during times of political uncertainty and social disintegration. For the past few years, none of the major theatre festivals in Western Europe or North America was considered complete if it did not include in its programs a show or play that in one way or another reacted to contemporary political realities—from the war in Iraq to censorship in Belarus. However, the political nature of theatre was never more evident than it was in the countries of the Soviet Block during Soviet rule. It is common knowledge that the rise of highly metaphorical, semantically multilayered, and limitlessly inventive Eastern European theatre was primarily determined by fierce Soviet censorship, which recklessly punished anything that questioned the ideology of the state. It was, however, quite blind to subtle irony and symbolism generated by the sharp and rebellious artist’s imagination.

The Lithuanian theatre was no exception in this respect. Directors who refused to stage Socialist Realism had no choice but to turn long dead geniuses of Western drama into their contemporaries by overlooking the literal meaning of their words and making costumes, lights, and bodies of actors speak figuratively. Theatre eventually became a substitute for religion for many citizens of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania as well as the country’s most successful cultural product for export. However, the ascendancy of this kind of director caused a significant shift of roles within the theatre itself, turning the stage into a playground for the director’s imagination, diminishing the roles of actors into functions of the narrative and making playwrights generally redundant. Paradoxically, the kind of theatre that started as a way of tricking the authoritarian regime eventually became a manifestation of a peculiar kind of director’s dictatorship.

It is important to note that the often authoritative tendencies of Lithuanian directing do not undermine the artistic quality of Lithuanian theatre. Lithuanian directors receive the most prestigious international theatre awards; they are invited to direct in major theatres of Russia, France, Finland, andScandinavia; and their productions are annually included in the programs of the largest international theatre festivals in Moscow, Dublin, and Avignon. However, over-exercising one muscle leads to degeneration of others in the body, which becomes especially evident when the body is finally forced to change its habitual position.

The Restoration of Independence resulted in an extreme make-over for the whole Lithuanian nation in general as well as the Lithuanian theatre in particular. The new era in the nation’s history asked for new stories to ponder what had happened. This time of reassessment of values revealed many gaps in the Lithuanian political, economical, social, and cultural systems. For instance, it suddenly became very clear that in the contemporary theatre of independentLithuania there were neither actively working playwrights nor colleges or universities that could professionally train them. Moreover, at the outset of independence, there were only a couple of productions of any kind of contemporary plays in the repertories of Lithuanian state or national theatres.

In this situation, resorting to contemporary plays from Western Europe—which had suddenly become a model in many respects for several newly liberated Eastern European countries—was immediately seen as the most obvious and accessible way to fill the gap. Consequently, in 1999 the Lithuanian Theatre and Cinema Information and Education Centre (TCIEC) launched a formerly undreamt of project, the New Drama Action—a few days of rehearsed readings and shows of contemporary plays from Latvia, Estonia, and the United Kingdom. The novelty of the event attracted enormous public attention and clearly demonstrated the Lithuanian audience’s thirst for innovative ways of telling original stories in a new kind of theatre. Although the New Drama Action soon became a very popular annual phenomenon that would significantly contribute to the repertories of many Lithuanian theatres, its attempts to invite Lithuanian writers into its otherwise welcoming embrace were still extremely cautious. Nevertheless, the seed was sown.

Typically, the first public initiatives to encourage Lithuanian writers to write for the theatre sprang not from the national or state theatres but from the fringe festivals. In 2001, the Lithuanian Association of University Theatres (LAUT) organized an international youth theatres festival. The association stated it was “Looking for Authors and Heroes.” Its goals were to collect as many scripts as possible from young Lithuanian playwrights, select the ones with the most potential, and distribute them to university or youth theatres that consisted of young people interested in acting and directing. Although the establishment had many reservations about the initiative, the festival attracted a lot of attention from audiences as well as the press. A few literary managers of the Lithuanian state theatres began to look through the submitted scripts as well as to see a few festival productions. They made contacts with selected playwrights. Some of these writers were encouraged to work in the field of playwriting, some of the larger having their work produced on bigger stages. The scale of the public interest evoked by the festival proved that the LAUT’s initiative was not a complete waste of time and should be further developed by state theatres and national festivals.

The majority of forums and festivals committed to the development of Lithuanian playwriting shared a similar structure. First, they would announce a call for submissions. Second, from the submitted material, they would select the scripts with the most potential. Then they would contact the authors of the selected scripts and invite them to participate in workshops or master classes run by invited and more experienced tutors from abroad. Finally, products of the workshops would be publicly presented in the form of rehearsed readings with the participation of professional Lithuanian actors and directors. Although the process of such events was most often hectic and uncoordinated, and the readings of the plays rarely resulted in anything other than an avalanche of fierce criticism directed at their authors, it gradually built a certain awareness of the pulsating necessity for new voices in the Lithuanian theatre and inspired confidence in newly emerging Lithuanian playwrights.

The loud and passionate discussions around the newborn phenomenon of Lithuanian playwriting drew the attention of the international theatre community. International interest in Lithuanian playwrights was considerably strengthened by a few unexpected successes of Lithuanian plays at international festivals, the most outstanding of which was the first prize for Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė‘s play Lucy Skates at the Berlin Play Market in 2004.[1] Consequently, the play was staged at a few theatres in Germany andRussia, and Lithuanian playwrights started to receive invitations to international conferences, festivals, and networks. For instance, my play Persona F.”[2]was translated into Russian and included in the program of the international festival Young Drama 2004 (also known as Liubimovka) in Moscow where I was recognized by the founding members of The Fence, a network of pan-European playwrights, translators, and dramaturgs. I consequently became an active member of the group.

International praise for Lithuanian playwrights in recognition of their unique voices and original perspective on theatre culture made the Lithuanian theatre establishment reassess its prejudices. Lithuanian state theatres little by little started to allow into their repertoires plays by more or less internationally acknowledged Lithuanian playwrights. A couple of those productions were highly successful. For example, Marius Ivaškevičius’s play Madagascar, about a well-known Lithuanian thinker’s naïve plan to move the entire Lithuanian nation to the island of Madagascar to avoid the fatal attrocities of World War II, is still one of the hits of the repertory of the State Small Theatre of Vilnius. It is the winner of numerous international as well as national awards. However, most Lithuanian plays were still considered to be of “insufficient artistic quality” and were looked down upon by the establishment of the Lithuanian theatre.

A productive action needed to be taken to open communication between the playwrights and the broader Lithuanian theatre community. In response to this, in 2005, I formed an informal playwrights club, D5, whose main goal was to exchange useful practices and information through public discussions and performances, giving voice to emerging Lithuanian playwrights. The formation of the club was partially inspired by Erik Ehn, the current Dean of the School of Theatre of the California Institute of the Arts. Ehn ran a week of workshops in Vilnius before the Lithuanian premiere of hisSaints’ Plays at the State Youth Theatre of Lithuania. He emphasized the importance of networking to the existence of the arts in general and playwriting in particular. The main activity of D5 was to discuss its members’ work, improve their writing skills, and present the products of the workshops to an audience. Although D5’s performances and happenings usually took place in spaces that had little to do with the theatre, they attracted a lot of young audiences. D5 was soon recognized as a very strong and distinct voice in the context of the Lithuanian theatre. Three club members’ plays were included in the Panorama of Contemporary Lithuanian Drama, one of the biggest festivals of Lithuanian playwriting organized by one of the major Lithuanian state theatres. Lithuanian regional theatres were finally happy to be able to access young authors who did not fence themselves off from the world and willingly worked with different communities. The Southwark Playhouse in Londoninvited two of the club’s members to develop their plays with British director Svetlana Dimcovic and present them at the British celebrations of Lithuanian art and culture that took place in London from January 7 to 26, 2008. In the spring of 2007, I was invited to Istanbul by the organizers of Oyun Yaz, a recently established festival of new Turkish drama, to run a workshop for emerging Turkish playwrights. In the same year I received a six-week CEC ArtsLink residency at the Centre Theatre Group of Los Angeles and the California Institute of the Arts where I continued artistic collaboration with Erik Ehn. Most importantly, the very existence of D5 proved to other Lithuanian playwrights that their voices could be heard. It inspired them to seek a more active involvement in the Lithuanian theatre community.

The gradually growing hubbub around the issue of the development of contemporary Lithuanian drama finally touched the National Drama Theatre of Lithuania when in 2005 it launched its own festival of contemporary Lithuanian plays: The Sources. Although during the three years of the festival’s existence, only one play has traveled from the festival’s program to the theatre’s repertory, the fact such a festival was organized by the National Drama Theatre of Lithuania demonstrates that the Lithuanian theatre establishment has finally recognized new Lithuanian playwrights and is willing to enter into a dialogue with them.

During the past couple of years, more and more Lithuanian state and regional theatres have started to express a serious interest in staging works by contemporary Lithuanian playwrights. Moreover, Lithuanian directors have little by little begun to collaborate with Lithuanian playwrights on more or less equal terms. The TCIEC in cooperation with a few Lithuanian publishers have started to publish a series of contemporary Lithuanian plays and launched a database of the works at Nevertheless, the situation of the playwright in the Lithuanian theatre is still best described by Audronis Liuga, the head of TCIEC and artistic director of the New Drama Action, in his introduction to Kolme kerettiläistä: Liettualaista nykydraamaa, a volume of Finnish translations of three contemporary Lithuanian plays:

Being a playwright in the Lithuanian theatre means becoming a heretic and proclaiming faith in the word in a kingdom of visual imagery. Only a few succeed in this heresy, and only the exceptions are able to inspire a new theatre culture through their words. To achieve this, a writer’s talent is not enough. One also needs to have a profound and elaborate knowledge of the stage where an auto-da-fé is being executed by the director’s imagination. Since the auto-da-fé of the Lithuanian theatre is renowned for its exceptional cruelty, it is not hard to imagine what kind of ingenuity and patience is required from a playwright. Although in Lithuania national playwriting is promoted in all possible ways, the director’s inquisition is watchfully guarding its faith.[3]

Although at the beginning of his introduction, Audronis Liuga is not optimistic about new playwrights in Lithuania, in further paragraphs he expresses a hope that the example of the three authors who have just been translated and published in Finnish will be an inspiration for their younger successors.[4] The accomplishments of several Lithuanian playwrights internationally and nationally indicate that such expectations may not be completely unjustified.

[1] Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė’s play “Free the Golden Colt” won first prize at the 2001 international youth theatres festival “Looking for Authors and Heroes”.

[2] My play “Persona F.” was developed during a series of workshops for emerging Lithuanian playwrights run by a famous Latvian playwright, Lauris Gundars, in 2003. The workshops were organized by the Sate Youth Theatre of Lithuania.

[3] “Kolme kerettiläistä: Liettualaista nykydraamaa” (Helsinki: Like, 2007). The excerpt quoted in this article has been translated into English by me solely for the purpose of this presentation.

[4] Ibid.